This week, with its mostly sunny October skies, brought unusually heavy activity to PT Hambleton’s crabbing and oystering operation.
The 2023 commercial oyster season opened on October 1 for hand tongers, patent tongers and divers. Dozens of tongers out of Tilghman, Neavitt and Bozman, working in close quarters, took to oyster beds in Broad Creek off of Deep Neck to get an early jump on the season which runs until March 30. Dredging season opens November 1.
On the wharf and docks at Hambleton’s, tongers unloading limit catches of oysters shared space with crabbers still working local waters.
It’s transition time for many watermen.
Some, after a long season of long crabbing days starting last April 1, wasted no time removing the flat wooden canopies over their decks that provide relief from summer’s heat and scorching sun. That gave them room to bring their culling tables aboard for separating market-size oysters from smalls and empty shells.
The canopies also have to make way for better access to the wide gunnel tops. Watermen stand there to scissor, pry and scrape the long tongs with their tooth-headed baskets over the bars to bring in their catch. Space is also needed for shaft-tonging winders and metal towers for hydraulic patent-tonging rigs.
Men were more than ready to offload white plastic Brute barrels coiled with as much as 7,000 feet of trotline, and stacks of wooden bushel baskets. They replaced them with heavier orange, laundry-style baskets used for their oyster catch.
At the wharf, Hambleton folks roll bushels of crabs, piled high, out of the sun and into cold storage before delivery to restaurants and picking houses. Only several feet away oysters clatter from the orange baskets into a bushel-sized metal bucket. Amid steady dialogue, the bucket is drawn up from the boats by a pulley system before being dumped into square, heavy-gauge cardboard boxes the width and height of pallets.
Most of the catch will be trucked to shucking houses in the tidewater area of Virginia’s western shore to feed an oyster-hungry population along the nation’s East Coast seaboard.
Pieces of paper get passed around between buyers and sellers chronicling each day’s catch before taken into the office for payment.
These early-season oysters are bringing $35 per bushel to the watermen, not considered a high price. Supply and demand. The Gulf Coast oyster fishery was closed last year to give stocks a chance to recover. That fishery is expected to be open this year which, some watermen say, could hold prices down.
A few more weeks will pass before all of the crabbers stop their harvesting for the year. Bushels of crabs that brought as much as $200 in the late spring and early summer now bring about $80. Grumbling, but normal. Wharf activity will decrease gradually before switching entirely to oysters.
Chatter topics along the docks shift quickly: disease and dead oysters further down the Chesapeake that may bring more harvesting pressure to middle Bay bars; reports about green-shirted natural resources officers who stop by regularly to monitor the catch and check sizes of oysters and crabs to keep watermen honest; thoughts about the orange-shirted Orioles and how deep they may go into the baseball playoffs; male crabs giving way now to greater numbers of female crabs – sooks; the high cost of razor clams used for bait and the high cost of fuel all of which cuts into harvesting profits; lots of spat on oysters coming in, expected after a summer with lots of sea nettles and accompanying salty water.
Once shucked, the spat-laden shells will be returned to Chesapeake oyster bars to help replenish populations.
Harvesting limits this year are the same as last year: 12 bushels per license per day for tongers and divers; 10 bushels per day per license for power dredgers; and 100 bushels per day for the few sail-powered skipjacks still working the Chesapeake, primarily further south in Tangier Sound.
Licensed commercial watermen are only allowed to oyster Monday through Friday.
All that said, there’s a general sense that the waning 2023 crabbing season has been a good one and the infant oyster season should also be decent, especially if we have another mild winter like last year.
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.